pixel

Baja Travel Adventures
By David Kier

The Cuestas of El Camino Real

By David Kier
Maps courtesy of 'The King's Highway in Baja California' by Harry Crosby.

In the Californias, El Camino Real was a road for people and pack animals that connected the missions with each other and was the line of supply and communication for over two hundred years.

El Gentil Cuesta
A satellite image of Cuesta El Gentil.

A cuesta is a road grade, and on El Camino Real in Baja California it is one that is typically steep with switchbacks cut into the mountainside so pack animals and people could travel up and down the peninsula where mountains would otherwise force long detours.

The Jesuit missionaries who operated the missions from 1697 to the end of 1767 engineered the road network between their missions to a high degree, in the name of the king. The Royal Road of California began in Loreto and radiated out to the missions and visitas (satellite mission outposts) established on the peninsula. These roads can still be seen for hundreds of miles where modern construction or natural erosion has not obliterated them.

Howard Gulick in the 1950s and Harry Crosby in the 1970s documented the Camino Real across much of Baja California. Their notes and maps help us find the ancient ‘highway’ in the twenty-first century, both on land and from space with the satellite map images available.

The Jesuit’s Camino Real usually ran in straight lines for long distances when the terrain permitted. At canyons or mountain passes are when the cuesta switchbacks would be employed to cross those obstacles.

There was often more than one Camino Real between many of the missions. Conditions would force a different route to be used, often for available water sources, or to visit one of the satellite mission stations (visitas) enroute. The most documented route of El Camino Real is the one used by Junípero Serra on his 1769 expedition from Loreto to San Diego Bay.

Cuestas from La Purisima to San Ignacio
The cuestas between La Purisima and San Ignacio

Two land expeditions set out from Loreto that year. The first was led by Captain Fernando de Rivera and Padre Juan Crespí. Crespí was the missionary at La Purísima until his journey north began in February of 1769 and with Rivera, they traveled to the edge of the Jesuit’s influence which was at Velicatá. Three years earlier, Padre Wenceslao Link had found Velicatá was an excellent site for a mission. The Jesuits were removed from all Spanish territory before they could establish a mission that far north. Crespí and Rivera arrived at Velicatá in March of 1769.

Junípero Serra with Captain Gaspar de Portolá, the newly appointed governor of the Californias, began their journey two months after Crespí and Rivera had started. When Junípero Serra arrived at Velicatá in May of 1769, he concluded it was indeed such an important location that it became his first founded California mission, and he named it San Fernando.

Padre Crespí documented the trail in great detail and that helped modern explorers like Harry Crosby discover the route used for his preparation of the two books, The King’s Highway in Baja California (1974) and Gateway to Alta California (2003).

Creating a trail for mules to bring people and cargo began early for the Jesuits when they expanded from Loreto to their second mission of San Javier. The canyon between the two sites required roadbuilding and at first the soldiers were employed. It didn’t take long for the Spaniards to utilize the large Indian workforce that was available for such tasks and a road was carved into the canyon walls to reach the valley above. That cuesta was near Las Parras, where wild grapes grew. The San Javier mission was first established in 1699 at today’s Rancho Viejo and moved south five miles after about ten years.

Cuestas between San Ignacio and Santa Gertrudis
The cuestas between San Ignacio and Santa Gertrudis

Perhaps the next major cuesta is found northbound between La Purísima and Guadalupe missions. Called Cuesta de los Angeles, this grade drops the Camino Real into Arroyo San Raymundo a few miles downstream from the mission visita of San Miguel. The topo map shows a ranch named Piedra de la Cuesta (Stone of the Grade) on the bottom of the grade. According to Harry Crosby’s book, the ranch is called Pie de la Cuesta (Foot of the Grade). GPS at the top of the grade is 26⁰39.825’, -112⁰20.900’ (1,640’). These cuestas and much of the mission road system can be seen on Internet satellite maps.

The next cuesta is north of Mission Guadalupe on the way to San Sebastián and is called El Barranco. 26⁰57.250', -112⁰ 25.090' (3,280’). Before auto roads were constructed in the 1980s, a mule was needed to visit the mission over this trail.

From San Sebastián the mission road passes through El Gato to the Cuesta de San Venancio. 27⁰04.470’, -112⁰28.770’ (3,100’). The trail follows the ridgeline about a mile west before dropping steeply down and passing near La Higuera and coming to La Candelaria. The next steep grade was just beyond Rancho la Candelaria and is known as Cuesta La Candelaria 27⁰ 05.920’, -112⁰ 32.690’ (3,225’) which brought the road onto the plain leading to San Ignacio. The Camino Real continues to San Ignacio, passing by the ranchos of Santa Cruz and San Luis.

The region between the missions of San Ignacio and Santa Gertrudis by far has the greatest number of mission roads that can be seen today. The area is remote and rugged. San Ignacio’s Padre Consag was very ambitious to expand the Jesuit missions to the north and may have initiated the many road construction projects out from San Ignacio. From the air (or satellites in space), one can see many roads radiating out from San Ignacio like spokes of a wagon wheel. There were basically three Jesuit El Camino Reals on the peninsula (Pacifico, Sierra, Golfo) based on the location of them on the peninsula.

Cuestas between Santa Gertrudis and San Borja
The cuestas between Santa Gertrudis and San Borja

A cuesta culebreada (switchback grade) as Harry Crosby called it, is between Arroyo el Infierno and Santa Marta, located at 27⁰29.800’, -112⁰55.830’ (2,600’). Cuesta de Tagualila at 27⁰49.777’, -113⁰01.300’ (1,840’) is where the Camino Real leaves the San Gregorio Plain and Crosby noted that here the old road is very deeply built with loose rock as much as five feet high on each side. Near the bottom of this grade, another branch of the Camino Real is seen as it climbs a short, steep grade. The cut trail is colored white compared to the dark volcanic surface rock. The top of this “Cuesta Blanca” is the small lakebed, Laguna la Tahualina. Both branches come together again several miles to the northwest.

Mission Santa Gertrudis was founded in 1752 at the only water source available for farming and ranching activities as needed for a colony in the desert. The multiple Camino Real roads converge at or near this mission. Heading north for San Borja, we can see a choice of roads available to the people of the time. The primary route is the Sierra Camino Real and heads northwest from Santa Gertrudis, like an arrow shot in as straight a line, as much as the terrain would allow, for nearly half the distance to San Borja. The mountains and the deep canyon of El Paraíso would be the barriers to the mission road alignment.

The Paraíso Canyon was a 1,200’ plunge for El Camino Real that began at 28⁰31.560’, -113⁰38.220’ (3,400’) and then a climb back out 2.3 miles up the canyon, past a ranch that began as a mission farm for San Borja, in the 1760s. Just two miles beyond the north rim of the canyon, El Camino Real comes to Las Cabras where the Spanish first saw snow in California, at an elevation of 4,000 feet.

David Kier
The author hiking El Camino Real

The final switchback cuesta before reaching Mission San Borja is called El Gentil, named after the plain between it and San Borja. The name Gentiles (along with heathens, pagans, and savages) was used by some of the missionaries and Spanish soldiers to describe the natives before they had become neophytes (baptized members of the mission).

The wonderfully preserved road construction that can be seen for much of the distance north from Loreto comes to an end at San Borja. The Jesuits were removed by force from all of the Spanish New World and replaced in California by the Franciscans, led by Junípero Serra. The short time following the founding of the final Jesuit mission (first at Calamajué then moved to Santa María) and the expulsion did not allow for the typical Jesuit road construction. North of San Borja, El Camino Real resembles not much more than a cattle trail. Some construction can be seen near Mission Santa María made by the Franciscans to facilitate their 1769 construction and development of Santa María and San Fernando de Velicatá.

Find the old Camino Real and if you can, take a walk along it to get a sense of what it was like to travel in Baja California over 250 years ago.

About David

David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler and the co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California: 1697-1834. David Kier’s research on the twenty-seven missions of Baja California was recently published in a new comprehensive book. Visit The Old Missions website for additional information.

4.7 112 Reviews
  • user logo
    Charles Gee
    From logo

    Incredibly fast and painless. Paid about $180 for a month of coverage. It was easier than going on line.

  • user logo
    Chyla Nava
    From logo

    Great, easy to use service. I haven't had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) but the online portal is very easy to use, and it's...

  • user logo
    Kierian Kuklok
    From logo

    I have been a customer for years and when I really needed them they stepped up in every way. I had a freak accident to my car and they...

  • user logo
    Lourdes Montoya
    From logo

    Easy, fast, and affordable.

  • user logo
    Aj Cornejo
    From logo

    Reasonable prices and we thought best chance to actually get results if we needed them.

  • user logo
    Adrianna Dorsey
    From logo

    Great company, great prices, and even better customer service. We've lived in Baja for 7 years and have used them for the past 6years....

  • user logo
    Gary Counts
    From logo

    So convenient and easy to navigate thru the online process. I'll never use any other Mexican insurance service!

  • user logo
    Joey Digiovanni
    From logo

    Easy to work with 😉. Always courteous and helpful. Have used them for all trips to Mexico. Easy website to navigate

  • user logo
    Jolene Bibian
    From logo

    Shauna at Baja Bound was AWESOME!! We had specific questions about how to quote the policy based on our vehicle type and she was super...

  • user logo
    Rebecca Newell
    From logo

    Great service!

  • user logo
    Maria Elena Smith
    From logo

    Easy and affordable.

  • user logo
    Mehdi Fahid
    From logo

    I reapplied for my Baja Bound Mexican car Insurance yesterday and I spoke to Ms. Shauna. This lady processed my application quickly and...

  • user logo
    Benjamin Driebe
    From logo

    Absolutely fantastic, I already forgot her name because I have a terrible memory but the woman that helped me on the phone was wonderful,...

  • user logo
    richard carr
    From logo

    fast replies and great price!

  • user logo
    Juan Zuniga
    From logo

    I just would like to know if you guys are going to update the fastpass direction any soon, during the month of January the lane changed to...

  • user logo
    Richard Schweiger
    From logo

    Very professional, very helpful, great policy, I couldn't be happier with Baja Mexican Insurance, the friendly smiles and ease of it all in...

  • user logo
    Ryan Frisby
    From logo

    We use them every time we travel to Mexico. Luckily we have not needed their services yet but getting insurance through them is quick and...

  • user logo
    Jan Muhammad
    From logo

    I need a tourist visa for maxico I'm from pakistan help me sir

  • user logo
    Tracy Moore
    From logo

    Very easy, quick, and professional

  • user logo
    robert kepper
    From logo

    They are very good . There website doesn't show you need a title to bring a vehicle across the border.I was stopped and told I had to...

  • user logo
    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

  • user logo
    Daniel “Dan M” Markofsky
    From logo

    Third time working with Baja Bound and they made it easy! Thanks!

  • user logo
    Steve Bender
    From logo

    Have never needed to use the insurance fortunately but the website always works great. Can buy a policy in about a minute.

  • user logo
    Jose Paez
    From logo

    Had a great experience getting insurance at Baja Bound, before I always stoped at the border to purchase my insurance, not anymore. By the...

  • user logo
    JUSTINE SERRANO
    From logo

    I purchased insurance through them & CHUBB for our trip to San Felipe. Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to our vehicle having an oil...

  • user logo
    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

  • user logo
    George
    From logo

    Excellent customer service

  • user logo
    Kellye Pummill
    From logo

    Fast and easy!

  • user logo
    Jennifer Toups
    From logo

    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

  • user logo
    Cesar Lopez
    From logo

    Very convenient, great price !!

  • user logo
    Louis Schneidman
    From logo

    I had an awesome experience with Baja Bound. Family owned and highly personal, top notch customer service. I have total peace of mind...

  • user logo
    Phil Noble
    From logo

    If you’re looking for Mexican Insurance that you can trust and feel good about while traveling in Mexico, you’ve found the right place....

  • user logo
    Jeff Bunker
    From logo

    Great coverage options . Price buy and print policy , very quick and easy , highly recommend them when driving in Mexico

  • user logo
    Burrell DeVine
    From logo

    Easy to navigate and very competitively priced! I had to call in and add an additional day, they couldn't have been any more pleasant to...

  • user logo
    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    Me gusta la asuguranza porque la puedes comprar por un dia y te asegura en Mexico por el tiempo que vas ya sea hasta por mes (Translated...

  • user logo
    james whitmer
    From logo

    Best insurance I've had so far

  • user logo
    Rail1riders
    From logo

    Quick, easy, well designed website and not just for Baja. Good rates for temporal residente gringos. We’re not living in Jalisco. Printed...

  • user logo
    Matt B
    From logo

    I always use Baja Bound to source my insurance while traveling to Mexico. Fortunately, I have not had to file any claims. I do appreciate...

  • user logo
    Refugio I. Rochin
    From logo

    Excellent online and by direct phone. Spanish and English with proven response to questions. Website is very informative about driving in...

  • user logo
    Kelly Carney
    From logo

    Yara is very helpful and explains everything. Love working with companies like this.

  • user logo
    Slumdog Gump
    From logo

    Changed some money. Good rate and friendly people.

  • user logo
    Jeff G
    From logo

    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

  • user logo
    don letson
    From logo

    Great renewal process, if only south Dakota would do the same for car registration.

  • user logo
    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

  • user logo
    Susana Judd
    From logo

    Easy, quick and fair prices. Easy to deal with if needed.

  • user logo
    Seismic Waterfinder
    From logo

    Very excellent service, needed insurance for Mexico, price was fair. The custumer service rep was Yara

  • user logo
    Nicolas Dervé
    From logo

    Very good ans very fast. We hope all will ben good if we need it.

  • user logo
    Blake Glassco
    From logo

    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

  • user logo
    JohnPaul Gemelli
    From logo

    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

  • user logo
    Jeff Brandt
    From logo

    so far so good, however I have read good things about them

  • user logo
    Sengoz N
    From logo

    SERIOUS.

  • user logo
    Kenneth Trass
    From logo

    Getting a policy was simple, Provided more than provider for price comparison.

  • user logo
    Esther Valencia
    From logo

    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

  • user logo
    Larry Cottingham
    From logo

    Great service, very helpful people there.

  • user logo
    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

  • user logo
    j dougher ty
    From logo

    EZ Peasy insurance purchase. Great service every time I've used them. Had to cancel one time when my travel plans went away - no problem....

  • user logo
    Paul Niehouse
    From logo

    Extremely easy to acquire a policy. Many options available. Reasonable rates.

  • user logo
    Colin
    From logo

    Super-easy and instant. Very happy with initial purchase.

  • user logo
    Howard M Elster
    From logo

    2nd year with Chubb. No problems

  • user logo
    Cyndee Congrove
    From logo

    Great customer service, quick, friendly staff helpfully answered all questions, very patient with my learning curve on a new product. Would...

  • user logo
    Art Eugenio
    From logo

    I've had Baja Bound insurance for more that ten years now with thousands of miles logged in Baja. Fortunately, I've only had one fender...

  • user logo
    Gabe Matthews
    From logo

    Where do i start..... you dont know you have good insurance until you have to actually use it. I have had Baja Bound INS for over 5 years...

  • user logo
    keith berkley
    From logo

    Been going to baja for 45 years. This is best insurance company i have come accross.

  • user logo
    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

  • user logo
    RaMon McBride
    From logo

    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

  • user logo
    Larry French
    From logo

    By far the best service for Mex insurance in Baja. They are personally there for you if you have problems south of the border.

  • user logo
    Tudor Thomas
    From logo

    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...